doctrine

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

THE QUESTION: 

What is (and is not) “fundamentalism”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

One of The Guy’s weekly memos for getreligion.org recently proposed that “fundamentalism” has become such an abused and misunderstood label that maybe we media folk should drop it altogether.

The Guy was provoked to go public with this heretical idea when The New York Times Book Review  assessed a memoir of life among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reviewer, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, said repeatedly that Witnesses are “fundamentalists.”

Ouch (see below).  If the Ivy League elite and the nation’s most influential newspaper are confused, it’s time to consider scrapping such a meaningless word.

Not so long ago, most people understood that a fundamentalist is by definition a Protestant, usually in the U.S., and a strongly tradition-minded one with a distinct flavor and fervor. Some quick history.

The term originated with “The Fundamentals,” a series of 12 booklets with 90 essays by varied thinkers from English-speaking countries that were distributed beginning in 1910. Along with standard Christian tenets, the writers defended and the authority and historical truth of the Bible over against liberal theories coming mainly from Germany.

That founding effort drew support from “mainline” Protestants, “evangelicals” and proto-“fundamentalists.” Brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil millionaires who funded the project, were lay Presbyterians. The authors were reputable scholars ranging from Anglican bishops to “mainline” seminary professors to Bible college presidents. The tricky issue of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis was not assigned to an extreme literal interpreter but respected Scottish theologian James Orr.

The budding movement was further defined by insistence on the “five points of fundamentalism,” namely the Bible’s “inerrancy” (history without error) as originally written, the truth of biblical miracles,  the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and “vicarious” atonement through his death on the cross to save sinners.

Notably, these points were defined by predecessors of today’s rather liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). After a dispute over clergy ordinations in New York City, the General Assembly of 1910 required affirmation of the five points by clergy candidates, and reaffirmed that policy in 1916 and 1923.

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Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

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Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Thinking about married priests: Has this issue outgrown old 'left' vs. 'right' framework?

Long ago — in the mid-1980s — I covered an event in Denver that drew quite a few conservative Catholic leaders. There was lots of time to talk, in between sessions.

During one break, I asked a small circle of participants to tell me what they thought were the biggest challenges facing the Catholic church. This was about the time — more than 30 years ago — laypeople people began talking about the surge in reports about clergy sexual abuse of children and teens.

Someone said the biggest challenge — looking into the future with a long lens — was the declining number of men seeking the priesthood. At some point, he added, the church would need to start ordaining married men to the priesthood. Others murmured agreement.

I made a mental note. This was the first time I had ever heard Catholic conservatives — as opposed to spirit of Vatican II progressives or ex-priests — say that they thought the Church of Rome would need to return to the ancient pattern — with married priests as the norm, and bishops being drawn from among celibate monastics. Since then, I have heard similar remarks from some Catholics on the right.

That hot button term — “married priests” — is back in the news, with open talk in the Amazon region about the ordination older married men, drawn from their local communities, to the priesthood.

Could this happen? Let’s look at two think pieces by well-known Catholic priests, one on the left side of the church and one on the right. The conservative priest — a former Anglican pastor — is married, with a family.

First up is the omnipresent — in U.S. media circles — Jesuit journalist Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analysts at Religion News Service. He used to be the editor at America magazine. Here is a crucial chunk of a recent Reese commentary for RNS:

Celibacy is not dogma; it is a legal requirement that can be changed. … Although Pope Francis places a very high value on celibacy, he is also a pragmatist who recognizes that indigenous communities are being denied the Eucharist and the sacraments because they don’t have priests.

After all, which is more important, a celibate priesthood or the Eucharist? At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” not “have a celibate priesthood.”

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Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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